You know the feeling. You’re visiting an interesting website that has a service you think might be useful, but there is no way to try it out properly without parting with your hard-earned cash. And often, even if they do have a trial option, it’s set up so poorly and requires you to give up so much personal information that you give up and go somewhere else. No thanks, I don’t want to give you my home phone number.
Pingdom, my company, had long planned to include the possibility for prospective users to try out the service for free before signing up for a full account. After analyzing the different kinds of trials available for a large number of services around the internet, we felt that we had found our success formula. Even in retrospect, the few simple rules we came up with have worked really well for us. Not all online services are created equal, but I think that our approach is generally enough to suit almost everyone.
So what is this success formula I’m talking about? We’ve narrowed it down to four simple rules for how a free trial of an online service should work. Let’s go through them one by one.
Signing up for a trial account should be easy and painless
This may seem like a no-brainer, but all too many companies require you to enter a significant amount of information about yourself before allowing you to try them out. Have you ever tried signing up for something only to be met by a huge registration form with lots of required fields? Most likely yes. How did it make you feel? That in itself should tell you not to do the same yourself.
Never make someone who is interested in your service jump through hoops to get to it. Instead, go in the other direction and make it even easier to sign up for a trial than it is to sign up for the vast majority of the free email services out there.
Do not require trial users to enter their credit card information
Anyone wanting to try out your service should be sure that there is no commitment involved. Requiring a credit card sends the wrong signals.
This is a shift in mentality from services where you actively have to cancel your account before the trial ends or be automatically charged for the next month. Users should upgrade their accounts themselves, making an active choice. You can remind them about it, and if you want to sweeten the deal by offering discounts or other offers, that is fine, but make sure the customer feels safe. Let them know that their account will just expire by itself after X number of days unless they themselves choose to upgrade it.
Do not cripple the trial
There should be no blanked-out options or missing features to stop the user from fully evaluating every aspect of your service. It is very common to cripple the features available during a trial, but the potential customers want to see everything you have to offer, and you should let them. Give them what any regular, paying customer gets, but for a limited period of time.
Though perhaps not obvious, this should also include support. Depending on the nature of your service, support can be a crucial part of the user experience, and an important part of their evaluation of you. Make sure that you address the needs of your trial users as well as your regular customers. Think of them as customers in the making.
Include a "highlight bonus."
Depending on how your service is built up, this fourth point may not be essential, but if you have add-ons and extra functionality that users pay for, this is a great way to make the trial more attractive. If a visitor is looking at your trial option, have something that will tip them over the edge and dive in.
The trick here is to pick a bonus that really highlights an important feature of your service. That way you are not just randomly spending money to add another feature checkbox for the trial option. Note that it doesn’t have to be anything huge. In our case, for example, the bonus is 20 free SMS alerts, which helps show users the full potential of our site monitoring service during the trial.
In the rear-view mirror
When we launched our free trial option, sign-ups and order flow both increased drastically from day one. We didn’t have more visitors than we normally did (at first), but that just goes to show how many potential customers may be dropping by the wayside if you don’t provide a way for visitors to sample what you have to offer.
Aside from the increased order flow, a positive side effect of the trial is that our support now has to deal with much fewer questions about specific features from prospective customers, since those who are interested can easily see for themselves. Sure, you have more users to deal with, but providing your service is not overly complicated (if so, then perhaps that is something you should look into, but more on that some other time) the support load is more than worth the effort.
Yes, all the key points I’ve listed are pretty much based on common sense, but it is surprising to see how often one or more of these items are ignored. Most often you should just look to yourself. How do you want to be treated? How would you react? Again, common sense, but sometimes in our rush to innovate and therefore often complicate, it’s hard to remember the simple things.
I would strongly urge all web apps to offer a full-featured trial option following the points outlined above. If you really believe in your product, that is the right thing to do, and you should end up getting a lot of new customers who may never have discovered you otherwise.